Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - Header - StudioBinder

T

he Story Circle is a classic example of story structure and the Hero’s journey, and its the reason filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan seem to consistently build great stories. 

Technically speaking, the story circle is a story structure tool developed by writer Dan Harmon. He created it as a kind of a shortcut to building a story.

WATCH: Dan Harmon's Story Circle

JOSEPH CAMPBELL STORY STRUCTURE

The universal language

There are two universal languages.

One is math...

The other is story.  

We all inherently understand images and characters. 

We tell stories about what we did over the weekend.

It's not always super compelling. People might not be paying attention to us.

But we tell the story.

We know exactly how to tell it too. Without stopping and thinking about it first.

The stories we often tell all the time follow Dan Harmon’s story circle.

Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - The Simpsons Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Because narrative is how we make sense of the world around us.

You could also think of it as the cliffs notes to Joseph Campbell.

If you want to know more about Joseph Campbell and his mono-myth, check out our other post here.  

Campbell's work was a big influence for George Lucas while he created the biggest film franchise of all time, Star Wars.

If you're curious how to write a show like Rick and Morty, this is the story structure you will want to use as a jumping off point. 

DAN HARMON STORY CIRCLE

The eight steps

You. Need. Go. Search. Find. Take. Return. Change. 

Those are the eight steps to Dan Harmon’s story circle.

1. YOU

The essence of the you step is the protagonist of the story. It doesn't always need to be a single person. It could be a family. Or a team. 

Or it could be a car.

What if you came into work late because of car trouble? When you arrived, you'd need to tell the story of what happened.

"My car (you) started making weird noises (need), so I had to take it to the shop (go) where they checked everything (search).

It turned out the car's engine was in bad shape (find), so they had to pull it out and order new parts (take).

They put the repaired motor back in (return), and I drove out of the shop in a car that felt brand new (change).

Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - Car Breaks Down

Dan Harmon’s story circle begins...

Best story ever? No. But the principle of the story circle is fully intact. 

You do that without knowing it.

So imagine how much better you can get at telling stories once you see the code behind them?

You'll be like Neo is at the end of The Matrix!

Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - The MAtrix Neo Stops Bullets

Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - The Matrix

You want to make your stories less anecdotal, and more universal.

The bulk of this comes from your story structure.

How can a story about car trouble be universal?

The majority of people in the world don't own a car.

Even fewer own a lightsaber...

So how does a story like Star Wars make sense?

We all have fathers - somewhere out there.

2. NEED

In our car story, the need was the "weird noises". 

You need to get those noises checked out. 

Need is essential to any story.

Without it, there is no reason to go forward.

Harold and Kumar need to get their grub on.

Rick needs to go to Bird Person's wedding to retrieve Jerry.

Rick and Morty | Bird Person

Life is full of constant needs.

Jerry needs a job. People need things from each other.

People need money. People need food. They need love.

Luke needs more than the moisture farms on Tatooine.

Without these 'basic' needs we'd all die!

Luckily for us storytellers, needs are constant and unending.

Not so lucky for us as human beings.

But it's a small price to pay for an easy-to-use story outline template!

Small victories. 

3. GO

Needs drive us to action.

You feel hungry; you get a sandwich.

Your car makes weird noises; you get it checked out. 

Go makes it active. This is why you hear "we need an active protagonist".

It also coincides with what's called the crossing of the threshold.

Rick and Morty | "I hope you got a pre-meld."

Which is a fancy Joseph Campbell way of saying "starting the adventure."

If there is a need but not a go, the story ends.

If the need is extreme, like being hungry, then the "you" starves and dies.

Try to make your need so vital that it's impossible not to go.

4. SEARCH

Search is where things begin getting more complicated. Both concerning the story you are telling AND in terms of the process. 

Hmm... that's probably not by accident...

The word search is helpful because it keeps you active.

Rick and Morty | Bird Peron's Wedding

The character can address the need by searching for an answer.

Great stories don't always do this so literally. For Harmon's story circle, it works to keep it active and straightforward. He's writing half hour tv shows.

Rick and Morty | Search for a new home

In a big epic feature film drama or a novel, the "search" is going to require more than a physical search. Another good way to think about this step is that it is the road of trials, in Campbell terms.

That means it's a series of obstacles the hero must overcome. It's where the rubber meets the road regarding that need.

5. FIND

Eureka! 

The hero has searched and searched, and now he's found something!

Whatever he needed!

Hooray... story over?

Nope. Because in a good story the hero doesn't find what he needs. He might have found what he wanted, but it turns out he needs something else.

Something bigger.

Rick and Morty | Shopping for a new world

Maybe he found out that he had some terrible weakness.

Maybe after scarfing down dozens of White Castle sliders you realize the real need is for you to stand up for yourself. 

Whatever it is, this is a moment for the hero. A crisis of discovery.

Not always good.

Plus finding something isn't enough... you also have to...

6. TAKE

Take whatever you found! And escape with it! 

Campbell might call this part of the story circle the magic flight.

I always picture Luke Skywalker running through the Death Star with Princess Leia. He found the princess, and now he's taking her to safety.

How to Write a Story Outline - Free Script Template - Luke Skywalker Saves Princess Leia

The magic flight in action

You've gone in, robbed the idol from the tomb, but now...

You have to make it out.

In the case of our Rick and Morty episode example, it would be the new found knowledge that Rick's actions are the cause for all of the family's troubles.

Rick and Morty | Rick's epiphany


7. RETURN

The return stage is coming into the home stretch. 

In our Rick and Morty example, this would be the family returning home...

Rick and Morty | The Return and Change

The character has brought back into the normal realm whatever they found and took. Be it a magical item, a person, a lesson...

And as a result of this they...

8. CHANGE

The change could be a personal one; it can be change to the world around them. 

In the instance of a movie or long story, it would be both.

Sometimes the change has opposite effects too. The world has changed for the better, but maybe the protagonist has changed for the worst.

Playing with the change step can be interesting. In the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has been forced to undergo a dramatic and painful change.

Dan Harmon Story Circle Can Help You Shape a Better Story - Batman

Holy Monomyth, Batman! Way to embrace the ‘change’ step!

That's what makes it a good story

Change is the key to any story.

You could think about the whole long eight step process full of story details as being about stretching out that change.

What do we do when we tell stories? In a basic primal way, we try to grasp the changes around us. The changes that we can't control.

Why do people die? Why does the sun rise each day?

Why does Rick have to always leave?

Our stories are how we better understand the world around us. 

In a way, stories are how we help ourselves cope with change.

Reminding ourselves over and  again that change will happen, and life goes on.

DAN HARMON STORY CIRCLE

How to apply the story circle

The first step to applying the story circle is seeing it all around you. 

Inception story circle:

A thief (you) needs to get back to his family (need) so he leaves (go) to assemble his team and create a plan (search). The team begins but the thief realizes that his guilt controls him (find) so now he must finish the job (take) and make it out alive (return) so that his crimes will be forgotten (change).


Inception Trailer

Apply the story circle to ALL the movies you see, the episodes of TV you watch, even to the ads you create. 

RICK AND MORTY STORY STRUCTURE

Rick and Morty in a mega-seed shell

Let's quickly look at the pilot episode for Rick and Morty:

1. DAN HARMON YOU

Here is out introduction to our characters:

Rick and Morty...

Rick and Morty | Pilot Episode

So now that we know the you... 

What's next?

2. DAN HARMON NEED

In this case, the need is the mega-seeds.

Rick and Morty | Need 

Rick needs the mega-seeds.

What's next?

3. DAN HARMON GO

Consider the video you just watched above...

Rick and Morty begin their journey to find the mega-seeds immediately after we learn the need, and this fast pace will occur in other stories as well.

Often you'll hear that your character must decide to start the journey.

Morty didn't come up with the idea to go and find mega-seeds...

But he does agree to go on the journey.

Make your character's responsible for their decisions, and it will make their actions seem a lot more active

4. DAN HARMON SEARCH

In this case, the search for the mega-seeds. 

Rick and Morty | Go

So now, Morty is on his way to find the mega-seeds with Grandpa Rick. 

What's next?

5. DAN HARMON FIND

So now Morty finds the mega-seeds.

Rick and Morty | Find

But... as we know... the story can't end there.

What's next?

6. DAN HARMON TAKE

Now that Rick and Morty have found the mega-seeds...

They need to take them as well. 

Rick and Morty | Take

This is the moment where Morty must escape with his boon.

The boon is the goal, and the goal is (somewhat) is the mega-seeds...

But also the new found appetite for adventure and bravery. 

What's next?

7. DAN HARMON RETURN

Now Morty must return to his old world, but he won't return the same.

He has found his new sense of bravery, and thus...

8. DAN HARMON CHANGE

Because Morty has found a new way of life...

The world around him will begin to shift.

His energy will affect his surroundings.

Rick and Morty | Change

He is no longer a product of his environment...

But rather, his environment is a product of him

up next

Essential Screenwriting Tips for Writing Better Movie Dialogue

The story circle will help to keep you on track, but there is more to learn. 

Check out our post on writing better movie dialogue.

Up Next: Screenwriting Tips for Writing Better Movie Dialogue →
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